The Sekulow Questions, Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

In this series, I have been showing a framework for the investigation that the Mueller questions, as imagined by Jay Sekulow, maps out. Thus far I have shown:

  • Russians, led by the Aras Agalarov and his son, cultivated Trump for years by dangling two things: real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin.
  • During the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.
  • During the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted. The Trump team took measures to keep those actions secret.
  • Starting in January 2017, Trump came to learn that FBI was investigating Mike Flynn. His real reasons for firing Flynn remain unreported, but it appears he had some concerns that the investigation into Flynn would expose him.

This post lays out the questions on obstruction that lead up to Comey’s firing on May 9, 2017.

February 14, 2017: What was the purpose of your Feb. 14, 2017, meeting with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

On February 13, Trump fired Mike Flynn. The explanation he gave was one of the concerns Sally Yates had given to Don McGahn when she told him about the interview, that Flynn had lied to Mike Pence about having discussed sanctions relief with Sergey Kislyak on December 29, 2016. Except, coming from Trump, that excuse makes no sense, both because he had already shown he didn’t care about the counterintelligence implications of that lie by including Flynn in the January 28 phone call with Putin and other sensitive meetings. But also because at least seven people in the White House knew what occurred in Flynn’s calls, and Pence probably did too.

Against that backdrop, the next day, Trump had Jim Comey stay late after an oval office meeting so he could ask him to drop the investigation into Flynn. Leading up to this meeting, Trump had already:

  • Asked Comey to investigate the pee tape allegations so he could exonerate the President
  • Asked if FBI leaks
  • Asked if Comey was loyal shortly after asking him, for the third time, if he wanted to keep his job
  • Claimed he distrusted Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed telling Trump about a congratulatory call from Putin

After Trump asked everyone in the meeting to leave him and Comey alone, both Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner lingered.

While the description of this meeting usually focuses on the Flynn discussion, according to Comey’s discussion, it also focused closely on leaks, which shows how Trump linked the two in his mind.

Here’s what Comey claims Trump said about Flynn:

He began by saying he wanted to “talk about Mike Flynn.” He then said that, although Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong” in his call with the Russians (a point he made at least two more times in the conversation), he had to let him go because he misled the Vice President, whom he described as “a good guy.” He explained that he just couldn’t have Flynn misleading the vice President and, in any event, he had other concerns about Flynn, and had a great guy coming in, so he had to let Flynn go.

[a discussion of Sean Spicer’s presser explaining the firing and another about the leaks of his calls to Mexican and Australian leaders]

He then referred at length to the leaks relating to Mike Flynn’s call with the Russians, which he stressed was not wrong in any way (“he made lots of calls”), but that the leaks were terrible.

[Comey’s agreement with Trump about the problem with leaks, but also his explanation that the leaks may not have been FBI; Reince Priebus tries to interrupt but Trump sends him away for a minute or two]

He then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying that Flynn is a good guy, and has been through a lot. He misled the Vice President but he didn’t do anything wrong on the call. He said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied by saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” but said no more.

In addition to providing Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey, asking this question might aim to understand the real reason Trump fired Flynn.

March 2, 2017: What did you think and do regarding the recusal of Mr. Sessions?  What efforts did you make to try to get him to change his mind? Did you discuss whether Mr. Sessions would protect you, and reference past attorneys general?

On March 2, citing consultations with senior department officials, Sessions recused himself “from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for President of the United States,” while noting that, “This announcement should not be interpreted as confirmation of the existence of any investigation or suggestive of the scope of any such investigation.” At that point, Dana Boente became Acting Attorney General for the investigation.

Note that this question isn’t just about Trump’s response to Sessions’ recusal — it’s also about what he did in advance of it. That’s likely because even before Sessions recused, Trump got Don McGahn to try to pressure the Attorney General not to do so. He also called Comey the night before and “talked about Sessions a bit.” When Sessions ultimately did recuse, Trump had a blow-up in which he expressed a belief that Attorneys General should protect their president.

[T]he president erupted in anger in front of numerous White House officials, saying he needed his attorney general to protect him. Mr. Trump said he had expected his top law enforcement official to safeguard him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy, as attorney general, had done for his brother John F. Kennedy and Eric H. Holder Jr. had for Barack Obama.

Mr. Trump then asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

In the days after the Sessions recusal, Trump also kicked off the year-long panic about being wiretapped.

On Thursday, Jeff Sessions recused from the election-related parts of this investigation. In response, Trump went on a rant (inside the White House) reported to be as angry as any since he became President. The next morning, Trump responded to a Breitbart article alleging a coup by making accusations that suggest any wiretaps involved in this investigation would be improper. Having reframed wiretaps that would be targeted at Russian spies as illegitimate, Trump then invited Nunes to explore any surveillance of campaign officials, even that not directly tied to Trump himself.

And Nunes obliged.

Don McGahn and Jeff Sessions, among others, have already provided their side of this story to Mueller’s team.

March 2 to March 20, 2017: What did you know about the F.B.I.’s investigation into Mr. Flynn and Russia in the days leading up to Mr. Comey’s testimony on March 20, 2017?

As Sekulow has recorded Mueller’s question, the special counsel wants to know what Trump already knew of the investigation into Mike Flynn before Comey publicly confirmed it in Congressional testimony. This may be a baseline question, to measure how much of Trump’s response was a reaction to the investigation becoming public.

But there are other things that went down in the weeks leading up to Comey’s testimony. Devin Nunes had already made considerable efforts to undermine the investigation; he would have been briefed on the investigation on March 2 (see footnote 75), the same day as Sessions recused.Trump went into a panic on March 4, just days after Sessions recusal, about being wiretapped; I’m wondering if there’s any evidence that Trump or Steven Bannon seeded the Breitbart story that kicked off the claim of a coup against Trump. Also of note is Don McGahn’s delay in conveying the records retention request about the investigation to the White House, even as Sean Spicer conducted a device search to learn who was using encrypted messengers.

March 20, 2017: What did you do in reaction to the March 20 testimony? Describe your contacts with intelligence officials.

On March 20, in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Comey publicly confirmed the counterintelligence investigation into Trump’s campaign.

I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.

In addition to questions about the investigation (including the revelation that FBI had not briefed the Gang of Eight on it until recently; we now know the briefing took place the day Jeff Sessions recused which suggests FBI avoided letting both Flynn and Sessions know details of it), Republicans used the hearing to delegitimize unmasking and the IC conclusion that Putin had affirmatively supported Trump.

Sekulow’s questions (or NYT’s rendition of them) lump the hearing, at which Admiral Mike Rogers also testified, in with Trump’s pressure on his spooks to issue a statement that he wasn’t under investigation. Two days after the hearing, Trump pressured Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats to intervene with Comey to stop the investigation.

It’s possible that the term “intelligence officials” includes HPSCI Chair Devin Nunes. On March 21, Nunes made his nighttime trip to the White House to accelerate the unmasking panic. Significantly, the panic didn’t just pertain to Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak; it also focused on the revelation of Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan’s secret trip to New York and probably other conversations with the Middle Eastern partners that have become part of this scandal.

The day after Nunes’ nighttime trip, Trump called Coats and Rogers (and probably Pompeo) and asked them to publicly deny any evidence of a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia; NSA documented the call to Rogers.

It’s now clear that the calls Nunes complained about being unmasked actually are evidence of a conspiracy (and as such, they probably provided an easy roadmap for Mueller to find the non-Russian conversations).

March 30, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on March 30?

On March 30, Trump called Comey on official phone lines and asked him to exonerate him on the Russia investigation. According to Comey, the conversation included the following:

He then said he was trying to run the country and the cloud of this Russia business was making that difficult. He said he thinks he would have won the health care vote but for the cloud. He then went on at great length, explaining that he has nothing to do with Russia (has a letter from the largest law firm in DC saying he has gotten no income from Russia). was not involved with hookers in Russia (can you imagine me, hookers? I have a beautiful wife, and it has been very painful). is bringing a personal lawsuit against Christopher Steele, always advised people to assume they were being recorded in Russia. has accounts now from those who travelled with him to Miss Universe pageant that he didn’t do anything, etc.

He asked what he could do to lift the cloud. I explained that we were running it down as quickly as possible and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our Good Housekeeping seal of approval, but we had to do our work. He agreed, but then returned to the problems this was causing him, went on at great length about how bad he was for Russia because of his commitment to more oil and more nukes (ours are 40 years old).

He said something about the hearing last week. I responded by telling him I wasn’t there as a volunteer and he asked who was driving that, was it Nunes who wanted it? I said all the leadership wanted to know what was going on and mentioned that Grassley had even held up the DAG nominee to demand information. I said we had briefed the leadership on exactly what we were doing and who we were investigating.

I reminded him that I had told him we weren’t investigating him and that I had told the Congressional leadership the same thing. He said it would be great if that could get out and several times asked me to find a way to get that out.

He talked about the guy he read about in the Washington Post today (NOTE: I think he meant Sergei Millian) and said he didn’t know him at all. He said that if there was “some satellite” (NOTE: I took this to mean some associate of his or his campaign) that did something, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything and hoped I would find a way to get out that we weren’t investigating him.

Trump also raised “McCabe thing,” yet another apparent attempt to tie the retention of McCabe to public exoneration from Comey.

Given the news that Sergei Millian had been pitching George Papadopoulos on a Trump Tower deal in the post-election period, I wonder whether Trump’s invocation of him in conjunction with “some satellite” is a reference to Papadopoulos, who had already been interviewed twice by this time. Nunes would have learned of his inclusion in the investigation in the March 2 CI briefing.

On top of the clear evidence that this call represented a (well-documented, including a contemporaneous call to Dana Boente) effort to quash the investigation and get public exoneration, the conversation as presented by Comey also includes several bogus statements designed to exonerate him. For example, Millian had actually worked with Trump in past years selling condos to rich Russians. Trump never did sue Steele (Michael Cohen sued BuzzFeed and Fusion early this year, but he dropped it in the wake of the FBI raid on him). And the March 8 letter from Morgan Lewis certifying he didn’t get income from Russia is unrelated to whether he has been utterly reliant on investment from Russia (to say nothing of the huge sums raised from Russian oligarchs for his inauguration). In other words, like the earlier false claim that Trump hadn’t stayed overnight in Moscow during the Miss Universe pageant and therefore couldn’t have been compromised, even at this point, Trump’s attempts to persuade the FBI he was innocent were based off false claims.

March 30, 2017: Flynn asks for immunity

Mike Flynn first asked Congress for immunity on March 30, 2017, with Trump backing the effort in a tweet.

A later question deals with this topic — and suggests Trump may have contacted Flynn directly about immunity at this time, but that contact is not public, if it occurred.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your call to Mr. Comey on April 11, 2017?

At 8:26AM on April 11, Comey returned a call to Trump. Trump asked again for Comey to lift the cloud on him.

He said he was following up to see if I did what he had asked last time–getting out that he personally is not under investigation. I relied that I had passed the request to the Acting AG and had not heard back from him. He spoke for a bit about why it was so important. He is trying to do work for the country, visit with foreign leaders, and any cloud, even a little cloud gets in the way of that. They keep bringing up the Russia thing as an excuse for losing the election.

[snip]

He then added, “Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal, we had that thing, you know.”

[snip]

He then said that I was doing a great job and wished me well.

April 11, 2017: What was the purpose of your April 11, 2017, statement to Maria Bartiromo?

On April 12, Fox Business News broadcast an interview with Maria Bartiromo (Mueller must know it was recorded on April 11, so presumably after the call with Comey). There are three key aspects of the interview. First, in the context of Trump’s failures to staff his agencies, Bartiromo asks why Comey is still around [note, I bet in Hope Hicks’ several days of interviews, they asked her if these questions were planted]. Given public reports, Trump may have already been thinking about firing Comey, though Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, and Don McGahn staved off the firing for weeks.

TRUMP:  I wish it would be explained better, the obstructionist nature, though, because a lot of times I’ll say why doesn’t so and so have people under him or her?

The reason is because we can’t get them approved.

BARTIROMO:  Well, people are still wondering, though, they’re scratching their heads, right, so many Obama-era staffers are still here.

For example, was it a mistake not to ask Jim Comey to step down from the FBI at the outset of your presidency?

Is it too late now to ask him to step down?

TRUMP:  No, it’s not too late, but, you know, I have confidence in him.  We’ll see what happens.  You know, it’s going to be interesting.

On the same day he had asked Comey to publicly state he wasn’t being interviewed, Trump said he still had confidence in Comey, even while suggesting a lot of other people were angling for the job (something he had also said in an earlier exchange with Comey).  Trump immediately pivoted to claiming Comey had kept Hillary from being charged.

TRUMP: But, you know, we have to just — look, I have so many people that want to come into this administration.  They’re so excited about this administration and what’s happening — bankers, law enforcement — everybody wants to come into this administration.  Don’t forget, when Jim Comey came out, he saved Hillary Clinton.  People don’t realize that.  He saved her life, because — I call it Comey [one].  And I joke about it a little bit.

When he was reading those charges, she was guilty on every charge.  And then he said, she was essentially OK.  But he — she wasn’t OK, because she was guilty on every charge.

And then you had two and then you had three.

But Hillary Clinton won — or Comey won.  She was guilty on every charge.

BARTIROMO:  Yes.

TRUMP:  So Director Comey…

BARTIROMO:  Well, that’s (INAUDIBLE)…

TRUMP:  No, I’m just saying…

BARTIROMO:  (INAUDIBLE)?

TRUMP:  Well, because I want to give everybody a good, fair chance.  Director Comey was very, very good to Hillary Clinton, that I can tell you.  If he weren’t, she would be, right now, going to trial.

From there, Bartiromo asks Trump why President Obama had changed the rules on sharing EO 12333 data. Trump suggests it is so his administration could be spied on, using the Susan Rice unmasking pseudo scandal as shorthand for spying on his team.

BARTIROMO:  Mr. President, just a final question for you.

In the last weeks of the Obama presidency, he changed all the rules in terms of the intelligence agencies, allowing them to share raw data.

TRUMP:  Terrible.

BARTIROMO:  Why do you think he did this?

TRUMP:  Well, I’m going to let you figure that one out.  But it’s so obvious.  When you look at Susan Rice and what’s going on, and so many people are coming up to me and apologizing now.  They’re saying you know, you were right when you said that.

Perhaps I didn’t know how right I was, because nobody knew the extent of it.

Undoubtedly, Mueller wants to know whether these comments relate to his comments to Comey (and, as I suggested, Hope Hicks may have helped elucidate that). The invocation of Hillary sets up one rationale for firing Comey, but one that contradicts with the official reason.

But the conversation also reflects Trump’s consistent panic that his actions (and those of his aides) will be captured by wiretaps.

May 3, 2017: What did you think and do about Mr. Comey’s May 3, 2017, testimony?

On May 3, Comey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee. It covered leaks (including whether he had ever authorized any, a question implicated in the Andrew McCabe firing), and the hacked email raising questions about whether Lynch could investigate Hillary. Comey described his actions in the Hillary investigation at length. This testimony would be cited by Rod Rosenstein in his letter supporting the firing of Comey. In addition, there were a number of questions about the Russia investigation, including questions focused on Trump, that would have driven Trump nuts.

Along with getting a reaction to the differences between what Comey said in testimony and Trump’s own version (which by this point he had shared several times), Mueller likely wants to know what Trump thinks of Comey’s claim that FBI treated the Russian investigation just like the Hillary one.

With respect to the Russian investigation, we treated it like we did with the Clinton investigation. We didn’t say a word about it until months into it and then the only thing we’ve confirmed so far about this is the same thing with the Clinton investigation. That we are investigating. And I would expect, we’re not going to say another peep about it until we’re done. And I don’t know what will be said when we’re done, but that’s the way we handled the Clinton investigation as well.

In a series of questions that were likely developed in conjunction with Trump, Lindsey Graham asked whether Comey stood by his earlier claim that there was an active investigation.

GRAHAM: Did you ever talk to Sally Yates about her concerns about General Flynn being compromised?

COMEY: I did, I don’t whether I can talk about it in this forum. But the answer is yes.

GRAHAM: That she had concerns about General Flynn and she expressed those concerns to you?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: We’ll talk about that later. Do you stand by your house testimony of March 20 that there was no surveillance of the Trump campaign that you’re aware of?

COMEY: Correct.

GRAHAM: You would know about it if they were, is that correct?

COMEY: I think so, yes.

GRAHAM: OK, Carter Page; was there a FISA warrant issued regarding Carter Page’s activity with the Russians.

COMEY: I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: Did you consider Carter page a agent of the campaign?

COMEY: Same answer, I can’t answer that here.

GRAHAM: OK. Do you stand by your testimony that there is an active investigation counterintelligence investigation regarding Trump campaign individuals in the Russian government as to whether not to collaborate? You said that in March…

COMEY: To see if there was any coordination between the Russian effort and peoples…

GRAHAM: Is that still going on?

COMEY: Yes.

GRAHAM: OK. So nothing’s changed. You stand by those two statements?

Curiously (not least because of certain investigative dates), Sheldon Whitehouse asked some pointed questions about whether Comey could reveal if an investigation was being starved by inaction.

WHITEHOUSE: Let’s say you’ve got a hypothetically, a RICO investigation and it has to go through procedures within the department necessary to allow a RICO investigation proceed if none of those have ever been invoked or implicated that would send a signal that maybe not much effort has been dedicated to it.

Would that be a legitimate question to ask? Have these — again, you’d have to know that it was a RICO investigation. But assuming that we knew that that was the case with those staging elements as an investigation moves forward and the internal department approvals be appropriate for us to ask about and you to answer about?

COMEY: Yes, that’s a harder question. I’m not sure it would be appropriate to answer it because it would give away what we were looking at potentially.

WHITEHOUSE: Would it be appropriate to ask if — whether any — any witnesses have been interviewed or whether any documents have been obtained pursuant to the investigation?

Richard Blumenthal asked Comey whether he could rule Trump in or out as a target of the investigation and specifically within that context, suggested appointing a special counsel (Patrick Leahy had already made the suggestion for a special counsel).

BLUMENTHAL: Have you — have you ruled out the president of the United States?

COMEY: I don’t — I don’t want people to over interpret this answer, I’m not going to comment on anyone in particular, because that puts me down a slope of — because if I say no to that then I have to answer succeeding questions. So what we’ve done is brief the chair and ranking on who the U.S. persons are that we’ve opened investigations on. And that’s — that’s as far as we’re going to go, at this point.

BLUMENTHAL: But as a former prosecutor, you know that when there’s an investigation into several potentially culpable individuals, the evidence from those individuals and the investigation can lead to others, correct?

COMEY: Correct. We’re always open-minded about — and we follow the evidence wherever it takes us.

BLUMENTHAL: So potentially, the president of the United States could be a target of your ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s involvement with Russian interference in our election, correct?

COMEY: I just worry — I don’t want to answer that — that — that seems to be unfair speculation. We will follow the evidence, we’ll try and find as much as we can and we’ll follow the evidence wherever it leads.

BLUMENTHAL: Wouldn’t this situation be ideal for the appointment of a special prosecutor, an independent counsel, in light of the fact that the attorney general has recused himself and, so far as your answers indicate today, no one has been ruled out publicly in your ongoing investigation. I understand the reasons that you want to avoid ruling out anyone publicly. But for exactly that reason, because of the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, isn’t this situation absolutely crying out for a special prosecutor?

Chuck Grassley asked Comey the first questions about what would become the year-long focus on Christopher Steele’s involvement in the FISA application on Carter Page.

GRASSLEY: On — on March 6, I wrote to you asking about the FBI’s relationship with the author of the trip — Trump-Russia dossier Christopher Steele. Most of these questions have not been answered, so I’m going to ask them now. Prior to the bureau launching the investigation of alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, did anyone from the FBI have interactions with Mr. Steele regarding the issue?

COMEY: That’s not a question that I can answer in this forum. As you know, I — I briefed you privately on this and if there’s more that’s necessary then I’d be happy to do it privately.

GRASSLEY: Have you ever represented to a judge that the FBI had interaction with Mr. Steele whether by name or not regarding alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia prior to the Bureau launching its investigation of the matter?

COMEY: I have to give you the same answer Mr. Chairman.

In a second round, Whitehouse asked about a Trump tweet suggesting Comey had given Hillary a free pass.

WHITEHOUSE: Thank you.

A couple of quick matters, for starters. Did you give Hillary Clinton quote, “a free pass for many bad deeds?” There was a tweet to that effect from the president.

COMEY: Oh, no, not — that was not my intention, certainly.

WHITEHOUSE: Well, did you give her a free pass for many bad deeds, whatever your intention may have been?

COMEY: We conducted a competent, honest and independent investigation, closed it while offering transparency to the American people. I believed what I said, there was not a prosecutable case, there.

Al Franken asked Comey whether the investigation might access Trump’s tax returns.

FRANKEN: I just want to clarify something — some of the answers that you gave me for example in response to director — I asked you would President Trump’s tax returns be material to the — such an investigation — the Russian investigation and does the investigation have access to President Trump’s tax returns and some other questions you answered I can’t say. And I’d like to get a clarification on that. Is it that you cant say or that you can’t say in this setting?

COMEY: That I won’t answer questions about the contours of the investigation. As I sit here I don’t know whether I would do it in a closed setting either. But for sure — I don’t want to begin answering questions about what we’re looking at and how.

Update: Contemporaneous reporting makes it clear that Trump was particularly irked by Comey’s admission that “It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election,” as that diminished Trump’s win. (h/t TC)

May 9, 2017: Regarding the decision to fire Mr. Comey: When was it made? Why? Who played a role?

The May 3 hearing is reportedly the precipitating event for Trump heading to Bedminster with Ivanka, Jared, and Stephen Miller on May 4 and deciding to fire Comey. Trump had Miller draft a letter explaining the firing, which Don McGahn would significantly edit when he saw it on May 8. McGahn also got Sessions and Rosenstein, who were peeved about different aspects of the hearing (those focused on Comey’s actions with regards to Hillary), to write letters supporting Comey’s firing.

Given that Mueller has the original draft of the firing letter and testimony from McGahn, Rosenstein, and Sessions, this question will largely allow Trump to refute evidence Mueller has already confirmed.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

Did Mueller’s Team Decide They No Longer Need Manafort to Flip?

One detail of the attacks TS Ellis made on Mueller’s team on Friday has gotten a lot of attention: his insinuation that Mueller’s team was only charging Manafort with bank fraud and tax evasion to get him to flip on Trump.

THE COURT: Apparently, if I look at the indictment, none of that information has anything to do with links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of Donald Trump. That seems to me to be obvious because they all long predate any contact or any affiliation of this defendant with the campaign. So I don’t see what relation this indictment has with anything the special prosecutor is authorized to investigate.

It looks to me instead that what is happening is that this investigation was underway. It had something. The special prosecutor took it, got indictments, and then in a time-honored practice which I’m fully familiar with — it exists largely in the drug area. If you get somebody in a conspiracy and get something against them, you can then tighten the screws, and they will begin to provide information in what you’re really interested in. That seems to me to be what is happening here. I’m not saying it’s illegitimate, but I think we ought to be very clear about these facts and what is happening.

[snip]

THE COURT: That’s right, but your argument says, Even though the investigation was really done by the Justice Department, handed to you, and then you’re now using it, as I indicated before, as a means of persuading Mr. Manafort to provide information.

It’s vernacular by the way. I’ve been here a long time. The vernacular is to sing. That’s what prosecutors use, but what you’ve got to be careful of is they may not just sing. They may also compose.

[snip]

THE COURT: It factually did not arise from the investigation. Now, saying it could have arised under it is another matter, but factually, it’s very clear. This was an ongoing investigation. You all got it from the Department of Justice. You’re pursuing it. Now I had speculated about why you’re really interested in it in this case. You don’t really care about Mr. Manafort’s bank fraud. Well, the government does. You really care about what information Mr. Manafort can give you that would reflect on Mr. Trump or lead to his prosecution or impeachment or whatever. That’s what you’re really interested in.

In spite of Ellis’ repeated suggestion that Mueller was just trying to get Manafort to flip and that that might not be illegitimate, Michael Dreeben never took Ellis’ bait, each time returning to the government’s argument that the indictment was clearly authorized by Rod Rosenstein’s  initial appointment memo, and in any case Manafort can’t challenge his indictment based off whether Mueller adhered to internal DOJ regulations.

THE COURT: Where am I wrong in that regard?

MR. DREEBEN: The issue, I think, before you is whether Mr. Manafort can dismiss the indictment based on his claim.

[snip]

In any event, your point, if I can distill it to its essence, is that this indictment can be traced to the authority the special prosecutor was given in the May and August letters. That, as far as you’re concerned, is the beginning and end of the matter.

MR. DREEBEN: Yes, Your Honor, it is the beginning and almost the end. And this is my last point, I promise.

THE COURT: All right.

MR. DREEBEN: The special counsel regulations that my friend is relying on are internal DOJ regulations. He referred to them as if they’re a statute. I want to be clear. They are not enacted by Congress. They are internal regulations of the Department of Justice.

Dreeben’s refusal to engage is all the more striking given one of the differences between the 45-page government response dated April 2 for Manafort’s DC challenge and the 30-page government response dated April 10 for Manafort’s EDVA challenge.

The two briefs are very similar and in some passages verbatim or nearly so. The DC version has more discussion of the Acting Attorney General’s statutory authority to appoint a Special Counsel — language like this:

Finally, Manafort’s remedial arguments lack merit. The Acting Attorney General had, and exercised, statutory authority to appoint a Special Counsel here, see 28 U.S.C. §§ 509, 510, 515, and the Special Counsel accordingly has authority to represent the United States in this prosecution. None of the authorities Manafort cites justifies dismissing an indictment signed by a duly appointed Department of Justice prosecutor based on an asserted regulatory violation, and none calls into question the jurisdiction of this Court.

It includes a longer discussion about how a Special Counsel differs from a Ken Starr type Independent Counsel. It cites some DC-specific precedents. And in general, the discussion in the DC brief is more extensive than the EDVA.

Generally, the differences are probably explained by differing page limits in DC and EDVA.

But along the way, an interesting passage I noted here got dropped: in addition to the general language about a special counsel appointment including the investigation of obstruction of that investigation, the DC brief noted the underlying discussion on Special Counsel regulations envisions the prosecution of people if “otherwise unrelated allegations against a central witness in the matter is necessary to obtain cooperation.”

[I]n deciding when additional jurisdiction is needed, the Special Counsel can draw guidance from the Department’s discussion accompanying the issuance of the Special Counsel regulations. That discussion illustrated the type of “adjustments to jurisdiction” that fall within Section 600.4(b). “For example,” the discussion stated, “a Special Counsel assigned responsibility for an alleged false statement about a government program may request additional jurisdiction to investigate allegations of misconduct with respect to the administration of that program; [or] a Special Counsel may conclude that investigating otherwise unrelated allegations against a central witness in the matter is necessary to obtain cooperation.” 64 Fed. Reg. at 37,039. “Rather than leaving the issue to argument and misunderstanding as to whether the new matters are included within a vague category of ‘related matters,’ the regulations clarify that the decision as to which component would handle such new matters would be made by the Attorney General.” Id.9

9 The allusion to “related matters” refers to the Independent Counsel Act’s provision that the independent counsel’s jurisdiction shall include “all matters related to” the subject of the appointment (28 U.S.C. § 593(b)(3)), which prompted the D.C. Circuit to observe that “the scope of a special prosecutor’s investigatory jurisdiction can be both wide in perimeter and fuzzy at the borders.” United States v. Wilson, 26 F.3d 142, 148 (D.C. Cir.), cert. denied, 514 U.S. 1051 (1995).

This exclusion, too, likely arises from page limits (and its exclusion may explain why Dreeben didn’t point to it in Friday’s argument).

But given Ellis’ focus on it, I find the exclusion notable.

Again, it’s most likely this is just a decision dictated by page limits. But it’s possible that Mueller’s team believed this language less important to include in any decisions issued in EDVA than DC. For example, the existing cooperation agreements were all signed in DC, even where (with George Papadopoulos and Richard Pinedo) at least some of the crimes occurred elsewhere. If Manafort ever flips, that plea agreement will presumably go through DC as well.

Or maybe, given Rick Gates’ cooperation, Mueller’s team has decided they can proceed without Manafort flipping, and instead send him to prison the same way Al Capone went: with tax charges rather than the most heinous crimes.

On the TS Ellis Show and the Lies about Lying

The last words in the transcript of the hearing held Friday in Paul Manafort’s Eastern District of Virginia bank fraud and tax crime case go like this:

THE COURT: Mr. Asonye, I’m glad to see you here.

MR. ASONYE: I’m glad to see you as well, Your Honor.

Uzo Asonye is an Assistant US Attorney in EDVA who has prosecuted fraud cases before TS Ellis. Mueller’s team added Asonye to the EDVA case at the suggestion of Ellis. Ellis returned to his pleasure that Mueller had heeded his suggestion several other times over the course of the hearing, starting from his first comment after Michael Dreeben introduced himself.

THE COURT: Okay. And, Mr. Asonye, I’m glad to see you here. I indicated that the special counsel should have local counsel, and that’s you.

[snip]

MR. DREEBEN: The second point here is that we are within the Department of Justice. To the extent that Mr. Manafort is suggesting that we’re analogous to the independent counsels that operated under the old statute, that’s not right. Our indictment was reviewed and approved by the Tax Division, by the National Security Division. We operate within a framework of the Department of Justice. We’re not different from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in that respect. We’re all part of the same Department of Justice.

THE COURT: You resisted my suggestion to have someone here, and Mr. Asonye showed up. When did you ask Mr. Asonye to join you?

[snip]

MR. DREEBEN: Thank you, Your Honor. We took your admonition to heart, and we are very happy to have Mr. Asonye join us.

THE COURT: Good. I think that’s important for communications as well. Plus, you never know. If you have to try this case, you will have to try it before me. Mr. Asonye has some experience here. Is that right, Mr. Asonye?

MR. ASONYE: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: And before me as well.

MR. ASONYE: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: So he can tell you some interesting things.

[snip]

THE COURT: Of course, the difference is that if you did assign it to the Eastern District of Virginia, it wouldn’t come, Mr. Asonye, with a $10 million budget; would it?

You wouldn’t know that though, because most of the reports from the hearing have focused on exchanges like this, from Fox News:

Mueller’s team says its authorities are laid out in documents including the August 2017 scope memo – and that some powers are actually secret because they involve ongoing investigations and national security matters that cannot be publicly disclosed.

Ellis seemed amused and not persuaded.

He summed up the argument of the Special Counsel’s Office as, “We said this was what [the] investigation was about, but we are not bound by it and we were lying.”

He referenced the common exclamation from NFL announcers, saying: “C’mon man!” [my emphasis]

To be sure, Ellis was undeniably confrontational with Dreeben, in this and several other exchanges. But the Fox line, which it picked up from early reports, tells a distorted view of the hearing (even ignoring Ellis’ well known schtick of being confrontational in the court room).

First, the Fox representation is factually inaccurate in two ways. Here’s the transcript of the exchange Fox claims to have quoted directly.

DREEBEN: So it is not really appropriate to assume that the (b)(i) description is the factual statement that the regulations contemplate.

THE COURT: Well, I understand your argument, but let me characterize it and see if you find it as satisfying as you appear to indicate that you think it is: We said this is what the investigation was about. But we’re not going to be bound by it, and we weren’t really telling the truth in that May 17 letter.

I don’t watch pro football, but I used to enjoy the program that came beforehand where a bunch of players would get on and essentially make fun of everybody. But they would put on some ridiculous thing, and then they would all say in a chorus, Come on, man. [my emphasis]

Ellis was referring, explicitly, to the May 17 letter appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel and not, as Fox suggests, the August 2 Rosenstein memo that lays out what the Deputy Attorney General had included in Mueller’s scope by that point in time. The distinction is significant for the matter before the court, a two-part argument Manafort made that 1) the initial Mueller appointment was limited to Russia’s tampering and obstruction thereof, but the permission in the appointment to investigate anything “arising out of” that Russia investigation — which this prosecution had to be — was improper, and 2) that the August memorialization of Mueller’s authority incorporating the Ukrainian money laundering did not authorize this indictment because Mueller had improperly claimed the pre-existing investigation arose out of, rather than was subsumed into, the Russia investigation.

In a dispute in which the first issue is the memo appointing Mueller, Ellis is accusing Rosenstein of not incorporating everything he appointed Mueller to do in his May 17 statement, which Dreeben explained was done to hide the scope of the counterintelligence concerns from targets. That’s a claim backed by the government’s brief and the public Rosenstein testimony it cites.

Recognizing the need for confidentiality about the investigation, id. at 30, the Acting Attorney General “discussed that with [the Special Counsel] when he started” and has continued to have “ongoing discussion about exactly what is within the scope of his investigation,”

[snip]

The regulations do not provide that the factual statement must be made public.

The government brief argues that, because of his role in the campaign and his ongoing ties to Russians — including Oleg Deripaska, by name — the Manafort investigation falls under the original grant of authority. They make the “arises out of” argument only secondarily.

[E]ven assuming that paragraph (b)(i) does not cover all of the conduct charged in the Indictment—and, in the government’s view, it does—the conduct would fall within the scope of a matter that “arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

Ellis’ concern that Rosenstein didn’t lay everything out in that first memo or might be hiding an ulterior motive of flipping Manafort go to two concerns that Dreeben (and Asonye’s presence) addressed head on. First, Ellis was concerned the Mueller team might be asserting it had unlimited power.

What we don’t want in this country is we don’t want anyone with unfettered power. We don’t want federal judges with unfettered power. We don’t want elected officials with unfettered power. We don’t want anybody, including the president of the United States, nobody to have unfettered power. So it’s unlikely you’re going to persuade me that the special prosecutor has unlimited powers to do anything he or she wants.

Though (again, given his reputation for beating up the side he plans to decide with) this line might be better understood as Ellis wanting to demonstrate a concern with the possibility that Mueller might think he has unfettered power.

Note, he includes the president in there.

Ellis also misstated, right as the discussion started, that the special counsel was not the government.

Let me ask the government — or not the government — the special counsel a few questions, Mr. Dreeben.

In correcting Ellis’ suggestion Mueller was not representing the government, Dreeben clarified that the Special Counsel was not operating under the Independent Counsel law that Ellis had elsewhere raised and seemed to be thinking of when suggesting they didn’t represent the government.

This is not the Independent Counsel Act that Your Honor was referring to in the conference that you spoke of. This is not a separate court-appointed prosecutor who’s operating under statutory independence. We are within the Department of Justice. We’re being supervised by an acting attorney general who has conferred upon us specific jurisdiction and who regularly is in a position to describe to us the metes and bounds of that.

To further establish this point the government notes — in both their brief and the hearing — that the Mueller team worked closely with the rest of DOJ in bringing the charges.

As explained above, every key step in this case has been authorized by the Acting Attorney General through ongoing consultation. Additionally, under the applicable rules, the Tax Division approved the tax-related charges. See 28 C.F.R. § 600.7(a) (Special Counsel must comply with DOJ rules, regulations, procedures, and policies); USAM § 6-4.200 (Tax Division must approve all criminal tax charges). And the Senior Assistant Special Counsel in charge of this prosecution is a long-time, career prosecutor with the internal authority to conduct this prosecution, separate and aside from his role in the Special Counsel’s Office.

While Ellis certainly made a public show of scolding the Mueller team claims, he did so in a hearing bracketed by his observation that Mueller had already done something — bring in Asonye — to assuage Ellis’ concerns about operating outside of normal DOJ procedure.

And while I hesitate to predict how Ellis will rule, I find the bracketing of the entire hearing with a focus on Asonye significant for two reasons. First, Ellis’ proposed remedy, if Mueller’s investigation were invalid, was to have EDVA prosecute the case (to which Downing suggested that that would make the search of his storage facility and home invalid, which for better and mostly worse is not how fourth amendment rulings work).

THE COURT: Let’s assume for a moment your argument that this delegation is in some way illegal. Why isn’t the right result simply to give to the Eastern District of Virginia’s U.S. Attorney’s Office — give it back to them and let them prosecute this indictment? Why isn’t that the right result?

MR. DOWNING: Well, the right result may be for the Department of Justice to finish the investigation they had started and make a determination as to whether or not to charge Mr. Manafort. But if, in fact, this order is defective, then Mr. Mueller did not have the authority of the U.S. Attorney to conduct a grand jury investigation, to get search warrants, or to return and sign an indictment.

THE COURT: All right. I think I understand.

Additionally, although many Manafort partisans view Ellis’ order that Mueller’s team give him an unredacted copy of the August 2 Rosenstein memo laying out everything that could be investigated as of that date as victory for Manafort, that actually falls far short of what Downing wanted, which was to have any other documentation showing the discussion behind appointing Mueller and approving subsequent steps thereafter.

MR. DOWNING: Just briefly, Your Honor. The one thing we would ask this Court to do before deciding the motion before the Court is to ask the government for what anybody who has had any experience with the Department of Justice knows exists, which is the written record. Where is the written record before Mr. Mueller was appointed? Where is the written record about the decision —

THE COURT: What do you mean by the written record?

MR. DOWNING: Mr. Rosenstein had a process he had to go through in order to determine that there was a conflict that gave rise to the appointment of special counsel, the specific matter that the special counsel was going to investigate in any additional jurisdiction he granted. It would all be written down somewhere. That’s how the Department of Justice works.

[snip]

THE COURT: All right. Is that what you’re — the record of identifying the conflict?

MR. DOWNING: I believe identification of the conflict, the matter that needed to be referred to a special counsel in order to — because of the conflict and the scope of the special counsel’s investigation, including any additional jurisdiction.

THE COURT: The May and August letters are the scope.

MR. DOWNING: That’s after the fact. You would expect that the Department of Justice, especially Mr. Rosenstein, would have had a memo before.

THE COURT: Why do you say that?

MR. DOWNING: Because in the Department of Justice generally, just in any situation —

THE COURT: Did you serve in the department?

MR. DOWNING: Fifteen years, five of which was under Mr. Rosenstein’s management. Mr. Rosenstein is a stickler for memos being written, for there to be a written record for the actions of the Department of Justice

In Rosenstein’s testimony and the government’s brief, they actually identify what the latter documents are: Urgent Reports documenting each major step, surely including the two searches on Manafort’s property.

The Special Counsel has an explicit notification obligation to the Attorney General: he “shall notify the Attorney General of events in the course of his or her investigation in conformity with the Departmental guidelines with respect to Urgent Reports.” 28 C.F.R. § 600.8(b). Those reports cover “[m]ajor developments in significant investigations and litigation,” which may include commencing an investigation; filing criminal charges; executing a search warrant; interviewing an important witness; and arresting a defendant.

So Downing specifically asked for (though not by name) the documentation that would have shown the back and forth discussions between Mueller and Rosenstein (and would have reflected Mueller’s compliance with the Urgent Reports requirement.

And Ellis didn’t grant that request. He asked only for the August 2 memo, not the Urgent Reports. That’s unsurprising — asking for the latter would have been a fairly breathtaking incursion on prosecutorial discretion.

But that suggests, at least thus far, Ellis is treating what he’s seeing as proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion.

Mueller Homing in on Trump’s Inauguration Graft

There are twin scoops today that suggest a new direction in the Mueller investigation. The AP broke the report that Mueller’s team interviewed Tom Barrack — who on top of being an actual billionaire (unlike Trump), one of his closest friends, and the guy who recommended he hire Paul Manafort, was his Inauguration Committee Chair — in December.

One of the people who spoke to AP said the questioning focused entirely on two officials from Trump’s campaign who have been indicted by Mueller: Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Manafort’s onetime deputy, Rick Gates. Gates agreed to plead guilty to federal conspiracy and false-statement charges in February and began cooperating with investigators.

A second person with knowledge of the Barrack interview said the questioning was broader, including financial matters about the campaign, the transition and Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.

Rick Gates, who served as Deputy Chair of the inauguration, flipped in late February.

In early April, the press reported that multiple oligarchs were being questioned about inauguration donations by Mueller.

Investigators are asking whether wealthy Russians illegally funneled cash donations directly or indirectly into Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and inauguration.

Yesterday, NYT confirmed that the oligarch stopped in NY was Viktor Vekselberg. In addition to the inauguration, Vekselberg attended the RT dinner attended by Mike Flynn, and ran a corrupt Cypriot bank with Wilbur Ross.

Federal agents working with Mr. Mueller stopped Mr. Vekselberg, a billionaire businessman, at a New York-area airport this year, searched his electronic devices and questioned him, according to people familiar with the matter. They confronted him after he stepped off a private plane about two months ago, according to one of the people.

[snip]

Vekselberg also attended a December 2015 dinner in Russia where Michael T. Flynn, Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, was also among the guests and sat beside Mr. Putin. The dinner was hosted by RT, the English-language television news network financed by the Kremlin.

[snip]

Another potential area of interest for Mr. Mueller is Mr. Vekselberg’s business in Cyprus, the Mediterranean nation considered a magnet for Russian money. Mr. Vekselberg has controlled a company that has been the largest single shareholder in the Bank of Cyprus. Around the same time that Mr. Vekselberg was investing in the bank, Mr. Trump’s future commerce secretary, Wilbur L. Ross, was its vice chairman.

Remember, Barrack raised double money for the inauguration than a normal take. And as of earlier this year, Trump still hadn’t donated the money, as promised.

In late September, the committee announced that it had donated $3 million to multiple groups involved in hurricane relief efforts in the Gulf Coast, Florida and the Caribbean. An undetermined amount of funds were allocated to redecorating the White House and Vice President Mike Pence’s home in Washington, rather than charitable efforts.

Barrack, chairman of the inaugural committee, said details about the committee’s donations to charity would be released in November. Yet the deadline passed without further financial information being disclosed. A spokesman for Barrack declined to comment on the report’s delay or allegations that the committee mismanaged funds under his leadership.

So that money went … somewhere.

Update: My use of “honing” instead of “homing” has set off quite the debate. I’ve changed it to move discussion back to the topic at hand. Thanks to all who weighed in.

The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation (Part Four)

In this series, I’m analyzing the Mueller questions as understood by Jay Sekulow and leaked to the NYT to show how they set up a more damning investigative framework than commentary has reflected.

This post laid out how the Agalarovs had been cultivating Trump for years, in part by dangling real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin. This post shows how during the election, the Russians and Trump danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in. This post laid out how, during the transition period, Trump’s team took a series of actions they attempted to keep secret that moved towards consummating the deal they had made with Russia, both in terms of policy concessions, particularly sanctions relief, and funding from Russian sources that could only be tapped if sanctions were lifted.

This post will look at Mueller’s reported investigative interest in Trump’s reaction to discovering the “Deep State” was investigating the election year operation, including the actions his team had tried to keep secret. Note, I have put all of the events leading up to Flynn’s firing here (not least because I think the firing itself often gets treated improperly as obstruction), though just some of the Jim Comey events. I will repeat the timeline of events in the next post, which overlaps temporally, for clarity.

January 6, 2017: What was your opinion of Mr. Comey during the transition?

This is a baseline question for Trump’s firing of Jim Comey. At a minimum, Trump would need to explain his decision to keep Comey. It also provides Trump an opportunity to rebut Comey’s claim that, in the January 6 meeting, Trump told Comey he:

had conducted myself honorably and had a great reputation. He said I was repeatedly put in impossible positions. He said you saved her and then they hated you for what you did later, but what coice did you have? He said he thought very highly of me and looked forward to working with me, saying he hoped I planned to stay on. I assured him I intended to stay. He said good.

January 6, 2017: What did you think about Mr. Comey’s intelligence briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, about Russian election interference?

One key detail Comey (and the other representatives of the intelligence community) would have detailed for Trump that day is not just that Russia interfered in the election, but their basis for concluding that “We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances,” a conclusion Republicans have objected to repeatedly.

In his book, but not his memos, Comey describes that immediately after the briefing, Trump first asked for assurances Russian interference hadn’t affected the outcome and then, with his team, started strategizing how to spin the conclusions so as to dismiss any outcome on the election.

‘I recall Trump listening without interrupting, and asking only one question, which was really more of a statement: “But you found there was no impact on the result, right?” The intelligence team said they had done no such analysis.

‘What I found telling was what Trump and his team didn’t ask. They were about to lead a country that had been attacked by a foreign adversary, yet they had no questions about what the future Russian threat might be.’

Instead, Trump and his team immediately started discussing how they would “spin” the information on Russia as if the intelligence officers were not in the room. ‘They were keen to emphasize that there was no impact on the vote, meaning that the Russians hadn’t elected Trump.’

This reflects the same concern expressed in the KT McFarland email from just days earlier (which probably reflected detailed Trump involvement) that acknowledging Russian involvement would “discredit[] Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

January 6, 2017: What was your reaction to Mr. Comey’s briefing that day about other intelligence matters?

In its analysis of the questions, NYT takes this question to be exclusively about Comey’s briefing on the Steele dossier, and it may be. But in Obama’s January 5 briefing covering the same issues, according to Susan Rice, Comey and others discussed concerns about sharing classified information with the Trump team, especially Mike Flynn.

The memorandum to file drafted by Ambassador Rice memorialized an important national security discussion between President Obama and the FBI Director and the Deputy Attorney General. President Obama and his national security team were justifiably concerned about potential risks to the Nation’s security from sharing highly classified information about Russia with certain members of the Trump transition team, particularly Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.

Even though concerns about Flynn came up in that Obama briefing, the FBI counterintelligence investigation did not. It’s possible that this passage from Comey’s memo, which describes the main part of the briefing and not that part dedicated to the Steele dossier, pertained to the counterintelligence concerns about Flynn,which Obama had already shared with Trump the previous fall; such a warning may or may not have included Flynn’s conversations with Sergey Kislyak.

If Comey briefed anything to do with Flynn, it would significantly change the importance of subsequent events.

As for the Steele dossier conversation, which surely is included with this question, Comey has claimed that Trump first tried to convince Comey is wasn’t true that he would need to “go there” to sleeping with prostitutes, “there were never prostitutes,” even though Trump’s reference to “the women who had falsely accused him of grabbing or touching them” actually undermined his defense.

Comey has also claimed that Trump seemed relieved when he said (in the context of the Steele briefing), that the FBI was not investigating him. Importantly, this took place after Comey had said he didn’t want people to claim the information came from the FBI.

I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them an excuse to write that the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold.

[snip]

I responded that we were not investigating him and the stuff might be totally made up but that it was being said out of Russia and our job was to protect the President from efforts to coerce him. I said we try to understand what the Russians are doing and what they might do. I added that I also wanted him to know this in case it came out in the media.

He said he was grateful for the conversation, said more nice things about me and how he looks forward to working with me and we departed the room.

January 12, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Jan. 12, 2017?

On January 12, in the context of a discussion of Trump aiming for better relationships with Putin, David Ignatius reported revealed that Flynn had called Sergey Kislyak “several times,” asking whether but not asserting that it might be an attempt to undercut sanctions.

Trump said Wednesday that his relationship with President Vladimir Putin is “an asset, not a liability.” Fair enough, but until he’s president, Trump needs to let Obama manage U.S.-Russia policy.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, cultivates close Russian contacts. He has appeared on Russia Today and received a speaking fee from the cable network, which was described in last week’s unclassified intelligence briefing on Russian hacking as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act(though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report neither revealed the FBI had intercepts of the conversation nor confirmed an investigation. But it may have alerted Trump that the actions he was probably a party to weeks earlier might have legal consequences.

January 24: FBI interviews Mike Flynn and he lies about talking about sanctions

January 26 and 27, 2017: What did you know about Sally Yates’s meetings about Mr. Flynn?

According to Sally Yates’ public testimony, she met with Don McGahn to discuss Mike Flynn’s interview with the FBI on January 26, 2017. She framed it by describing that DOJ knew Mike Pence’s January 15 comments about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were not correct.

YATES: So I told them again that there were a number of press accounts of statements that had been made by the vice president and other high-ranking White House officials about General Flynn’s conduct that we knew to be untrue. And we told them how we knew that this – how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew that it was untrue.

And we walked the White House Counsel who also had an associate there with him through General Flynn’s underlying conduct, the contents of which I obviously cannot go through with you today because it’s classified. But we took him through in a fair amount of detail of the underlying conduct, what General Flynn had done, and then we walked through the various press accounts and how it had been falsely reported.

We also told the White House Counsel that General Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on February [sic] 24. Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that. And we then walked through with Mr. McGahn essentially why we were telling them about this and the first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself.

Secondly, we told him we felt like the vice president and others were entitled to know that the information that they were conveying to the American people wasn’t true. And we wanted to make it really clear right out of the gate that we were not accusing Vice President Pence of knowingly providing false information to the American people.

And, in fact, Mr. McGahn responded back to me to let me know that anything that General Flynn would’ve said would have been based — excuse me — anything that Vice President Pence would have said would have been based on what General Flynn had told him.

We told him the third reason was — is because we were concerned that the American people had been misled about the underlying conduct and what General Flynn had done, and additionally, that we weren’t the only ones that knew all of this, that the Russians also knew about what General Flynn had done.

And the Russians also knew that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others, because in the media accounts, it was clear from the vice president and others that they were repeating what General Flynn had told them, and that this was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information.

And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians. Finally, we told them that we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.

I remember that Mr. McGahn asked me whether or not General Flynn should be fired, and I told him that that really wasn’t our call, that was up to them, but that we were giving them this information so that they could take action, and that was the first meeting.

Then there was a follow-up meeting on January 27. Among the five topics discussed, McGahn asked if Flynn was in legal jeopardy, and if “they” (presumably meaning he and the Associate WHCO in the meeting) could see the underlying intelligence.

WHITEHOUSE: Did you discuss criminal prosecution of Mr. Flynn — General Flynn?

YATES: My recollection is that did not really come up much in the first meeting. It did come up in the second meeting, when Mr. McGahn called me back the next morning and asked the — the morning after — this is the morning of the 27th, now — and asked me if I could come back to his office.

And so I went back with the NSD official, and there were essentially four topics that he wanted to discuss there, and one of those topics was precisely that. He asked about the applicability of certain statutes, certain criminal statutes and, more specifically,

[snip]

And there was a request made by Mr. McGahn, in the second meeting as to whether or not they would be able to look at the underlying evidence that we had that we had described for him of General Flynn’s conduct. And we told him that we were inclined to allow them to look at that underlying evidence, that we wanted to go back to DOJ and be able to make the logistical arrangements for that. This second meeting on the 27th occurred late in the afternoon, this is Friday the 27th. So we told him that we would work with the FBI over the weekend on this issue and get back with him on Monday morning. And I called him first thing Monday morning to let him know that we would allow them to come over and to review the underlying evidence.

By the time the materials for review became available on January 30, Yates had been fired, nominally because she refused to defend Trump’s Muslim ban.

The HPSCI report (particularly content newly unredacted on May 4; see PDF 63 ff) reveals there were several concerns about Flynn’s contradictory comments (which Republicans bizarrely present as conflict). First, there had been a counterintelligence investigation into Flynn still active in December 2016, though FBI may have been moving to shut it down. The interview may have been sparked by Logan Act concerns, or it may have been Flynn’s public comments to Pence (the Republican report ignores that this would pose a blackmail problem). Comey told HPSCI that the agents found Flynn — a lifetime intelligence officer — exhibited no physical signs of deceit, but made it clear the Agents did find his statements plainly conflicted with known facts.

When Mueller asks the President what he knew about the meetings, he likely wants to know (and already has answers from McGahn and likely the Associate) whether they told him about the Flynn interview, if so when, and in how much detail. If they did tell Trump, Mueller may also want to know about whether McGahn’s questions on the 27th (including whether Flynn was in legal jeopardy) reflect Trump’s own questions.

Obviously, one other subtext of this question pertains to whether Yates’ pursuit of Flynn contributed to her firing.

The other critical point about whether and what Trump knew of Yates’ meetings with McGahn: on January 27, he had his first creepy meeting with Jim Comey. Then, on January 28, he had his first phone call with Vladimir Putin, a call Flynn attended.

January 27, 2017: What was the purpose of your Jan. 27, 2017, dinner with Mr. Comey, and what was said?

At lunchtime on January 27 — so after McGahn had called Yates to set up a follow-up meeting and indicated concerns about Flynn’s legal jeopardy, but before that meeting happened — Trump called Comey and set up dinner that day. According to Comey, several minor things that would recur later came up, including questions about Andrew McCabe and Trump’s exposition of the Hillary email investigation.

In addition, five other key things happened at the meeting.

He invited the FBI to investigate “the Golden Showers” thing to prove it was a lie:

At this point, he turned to what he called “the golden showers thing”

[snip]

He said he had spoken to people who had been on the Miss Universe trip with him and they had reminded him that he didn’t stay over night in Russia for that. [this is not true]

[snip]

He said he thought maybe he should ask me to investigate the whole thing to prove it was a lie. I did not ask any questions. I replied that it was up to him, but I wouldn’t want to create a narrative that we were investigating him, because we were not and I worried such a thing would be misconstrued. Ii also said that is very difficult to disprove a lie. He said ‘maybe you’re right,’ but several times asked me to think about it and said he would also think about it.

He asked if the FBI leaks:

He asked whether the FBI leaks and I answered that of course in an organization of 36,000 we were going to have some of that, but I said I think the FBI leaks far less than people often say.

He asked if Comey wanted to keep his job, even though they had discussed it twice before:

He touched on my future at various points. The first time he asked “so what do you want to do,” explaining that lots of people wanted my job (“about 20 people”), that he thought very highly of me, but he would understand if I wanted to walk away given all I had been through, although he thought that would be bad for me personally because it would look like I had done something wrong, that he of course can make a change at FBI if he wants, but he wants to know what I think. There was no acknowledgement by him (or me) that we had already talked about this twice.

I responded by saying that he could fire me any time he wished, but that I wanted to stay and do a job I love to and think I am doing well.

He asked for loyalty:

He replied that he needed loyalty and expected loyalty.

[snip — this comes after the request for an investigation]

He then returned to loyalty, saying “I need loyalty.” I replied that he would always get honesty from me. He paused and said that’s what he wants, “honest loyalty.” I replied, “you will get that from me.”

He claimed to suspect Mike Flynn’s judgment because he had delayed in telling Trump about Putin’s congratulatory phone call:

He then went on to explain that he has serious reservations about Mike Flynn’s judgment and illustrated with a story from that day in which the President apparently discovered during his toast to Teresa May that [Vladimir Putin] had called four days ago. Apparently, as the President was toasting PM May, he was explaining that she had been the first to call him after his inauguration and Flynn interrupted to say that [Putin] had called (first, apparently). It was then that the President learned of [Putin’s] call and he confronted Flynn about it (not clear whether that was in the moment or after the lunch with PM May). Flynn said the return call was scheduled for Saturday, which prompted a heated reply from the President that six days was not an appropriate period of time to return a call from the [President] of a country like [Russia]. (“This isn’t [redacted] we are talking about.”) He said that if he called [redacted] and didn’t get a return call for six days he would be very upset. In telling the story, the President pointed his fingers at his head and said “the guy has serious judgment issues.” I did not comment at any point during this topic and there was no mention or acknowledgement of any FBI interest in or contact with General Flynn.

Trump would be hard pressed to argue the meeting was unrelated to the Yates meeting and the FBI investigation. Which would mean one thing Trump did — in a meeting where he also lied to claim he hadn’t had sex in Moscow — was to disclaim prior knowledge of the Putin meeting the next day (even while emphasizing the import of it).

Of course, the claim he thought Flynn had poor judgment didn’t lead him to keep Flynn out of the phone call with Putin the next day.

January 28: Trump, Pence, Flynn, Priebus, Bannon, and Spicer phone Vladimir Putin

February 9, 2017: What was your reaction to news reports on Feb. 8-9, 2017?

According to Jim Comey, he went for a meet and greet with Reince Priebus on February 8. While he was waiting, Mike Flynn sat down to chat with him though didn’t mention the FBI interview. Then, after clarifying that the conversation with Comey was a “private conversation,” he asked if there was a FISA order on Flynn. Comey appears to have answered in the negative. Priebus then took Comey in to meet with Trump, who defended his answer in an interview with Bill O’Reilly released on February 6) that “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” After Comey criticized that part of the answer, Trump, “clearly noticed I had directly criticized him.” (h/t TC for reminding me to add this.) Since Yates had told McGahn how they knew Flynn had lied, Priebus’ question about a FISA order suggests the White House was trying to find out whether the collection was just incidental, or whether both sides of all Flynn’s conversations would have been picked up.

On February 9, the WaPo reported that Flynn had discussed sanctions, in spite of public denials from the White House that he had.

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday [February 8] denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday [February 9], Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Officials said this week that the FBI is continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Several officials emphasized that while sanctions were discussed, they did not see evidence that Flynn had an intent to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.

In addition to tracking Flynn’s changing claims, it also noted that on January 15, Mike Pence had denied both any discussion of sanctions in the December call and discussions with Russia during the campaign.

On February 10, Trump was asked by reporters about Flynn’s answer. Trump played dumb: “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that.” (h/t TC)

Presumably, Mueller wants to know how surprised Trump was about this story (which actually builds on whether McGahn told him about the Yates conversation). But given Trump’s earlier question about FBI leaks, I also wonder whether Mueller knows that Trump knew this was coming. That is, some of the leaks may have come from closer to the White House, as an excuse to fire Flynn, using the same emphasis that the story (and Yates) had: the claim that Flynn had lied to Pence.

Except Mueller probably knows that the effort to soothe Russia’s concerns about sanctions made in December were a surprise to few top aides in the White House, least of all Trump.

February 13, 2017: How was the decision made to fire Mr. Flynn on Feb. 13, 2017?

We have remarkably little reporting on how and why Flynn was actually fired — mostly just the cover story that it was because Flynn lied to Pence — though after Flynn flipped last year, Trump newly claimed he had to fire Flynn because he lied to the FBI (something that, if the claims about the original 302 are correct, FBI hadn’t concluded at the time Trump fired him).

The thing is, neither story makes sense. It’s virtually certain that many people in the White House knew what Flynn had said to Sergey Kislyak back in December 2016; Tom Bossert was included in KT McFarland’s emails to Mike Flynn, and he sent it to Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon, Sean Spicer, and at least two other people. All of those people, save Bossert, are known to have provided testimony to Mueller’s team.

But it also makes little sense to argue that Trump had to fire Flynn because he lied. If so, he would have done so either immediately, before the Putin meeting, or much later, after FBI actually came to the conclusion he had lied.

One logical explanation is that Flynn lied because he was told to lie, in an effort to continue to hide what the Trump Administration was doing in the transition period to pay off its debts to Russia. But faced with the prospect that the FBI would continue to investigate Flynn, Trump cut him out in an effort to end the investigation. Which explains why things with Comey proceeded the way they did.

Update: This post has been updated with new details surrounding February 8-10 and newly unredacted details from the HPSCI report.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

Trump Repeats the “Tapp” Story Line from Season One

Last March 4, as it became clear the FBI was investigating him, President Trump wrote a bunch of tweets that claimed, falsely, that he had been wiretapped.

He even called for a “good lawyer” to make a case out of the “fact” that Obama was tapping his phone.

Today, Day Two of the Don and Rudy show, NBC has an exclusive story reporting that Michael Cohen’s phones were tapped before he was raided by the FBI a few weeks ago.

It’s certainly possible that the story is true. After all, prosecutors already revealed that “the USAO-SDNY has already obtained search warrants – covert until this point – on multiple different email accounts maintained by Cohen.” They also referred to some [redacted] reason to be concerned that Cohen was destroying evidence. So it’s certainly feasible SDNY had probable cause and reason to want to wiretap mob lawyer Michael Cohen.

But within minutes of the story breaking, Rudy was on the phone with Robert Costa, making false claims that if the wiretap picked up a conversation between Trump and Cohen, as the NBC report claims based off a single source, the FBI would need to notify Trump.

Giuliani tells me he can’t confirm there were wiretaps, hasn’t been informed. But when read NBC report, he was furious. “If they picked up the president, they would have had to notify him.” Said if true, wld be a “mockery” of attorney-client privilege and “gov’t misconduct”

And Giuliani’s concerns echo advice he gave Trump as the Cohen story was breaking, to stay off the phones with Cohen because they might be tapped. something the story itself describes, attributed to “sources close to” Rudy.

After the raid, members of Trump’s legal team advised the president not to speak to Cohen, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

Two sources close to Trump’s newest attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, say he learned that days after the raid the president had made a call to Cohen, and told Trump never to call again out of concern the call was being recorded by prosecutors.

Why would this detail be included in this NBC story? It’s like a Chekhov suicide pill, unnecessary to the story in chief but useful for giving a story additional dramatic meaning [yes, I made that term up, but I’ve got a PhD in literature, so am taking license to do so].

Incidentally, Corey Lewandowski was dining with Rudy last night before he went on Hannity.

As to the report about the wiretap itself, the NBC story is sourced to:

” two people with knowledge of the legal proceedings involving Cohen” [a kind of code often used to describe defense lawyers, though there are so many involved in this wiretap that it could be any of many]

“one person with direct knowledge”

“the person ” [that is, with direct knowledge — this is the confirmation that a call to the White House got picked up]

Nowhere does the story explain why someone with knowledge of a wiretap would want to burn it.

Certainly, there are explanations that given the people involved might explain the story. Michael Avenatti has claimed to know quite a bit about the surveillance of Michael Cohen; certainly, he has had communications with prosecutors involved, not least about whether he can intervene in the case. Alternately, Rudy is still quite close to some of NY’s more unethical FBI Agents, and it’s certainly possible one of them leaked the news.

By all means, let’s entertain the distinct possibility that the President’s personal lawyer, with all his mob ties, got treated like a mob lawyer. But let’s remember that Rudy appears to have made promises he can end the investigations into the President in the short term. He’s a liar. And Trump has specifically lied about being wiretapped before. So even if Cohen was wiretapped, beware serial liars making claims about the impact of such wiretaps on the President himself.

The President who cried “wiretap” once too often should be treated with a great deal of skepticism, particularly given the way Rudy immediately used this story to attack the investigation into Cohen.

Update: And now Rudy is using the alleged wiretap to call for Sessions to investigate those who were investigating  Cohen.

Rudy Giuliani called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to intervene in the Michael Cohen case and put the people behind the probe “under investigation” in a phone call with The Hill on Thursday.

“I am waiting for the Attorney General to step in, in his role as defender of justice, and put these people under investigation,” Giuliani said, reacting to an NBC News report that phones belonging to Cohen, President Trump’s longtime personal attorney, had been tapped by investigators.

He gives up the game when he complains that FBI didn’t inform “us” of the alleged wiretap.

But Giuliani said that a wiretapping of Cohen would amount to “gross misconduct” by the government. He further alleged that “this case has been surrounded by numerous acts” that fit that description.

Giuliani added sarcastically, “And they don’t even notify us? I mean, he’s only the president of the United States.”

Rudy wasn’t representing Trump when the raid occurred.

Update: Rudy again gives up the game when he suggests only the FBI, the independent counsel, or DOJ would know about this wiretap.

Giuliani said that he found out about the wiretap news from NBC News’ report, which cited “two people with knowledge of the legal proceedings,” and not from Cohen himself. He believed someone in the Justice Department was behind the leak.

“Nobody else would know about it,” Giuliani said. “Cohen didn’t know about it, so it has to be the FBI, the independent counsel, or the Justice Department.”

“Anybody who says that I’m exaggerating when I say that this is an out-of-control investigation and they’re acting like storm troopers––give me a break, baby! They prove it every day.”

As I’ve already suggested, Avenatti is one other outsider who might have a whiff of this, if true. But in any case, the raid, and therefore the wiretap, is understood to have involved an independent investigation conducted by SDNY, not Mueller’s team. If true, there’s no way Mueller would know about it either. And yet Rudy uses it to suggest the Mueller investigation is out of control.

Update: … and NBC has retracted the story. FBI had a pen register on Cohen, not a wiretap. Which of course they would, because that’s one thing they use to decide which emails — which we know they collected — to read.

The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia (Part Three)

In this series, I’m analyzing the Mueller questions written down by Jay Sekulow and leaked to the NYT to show how they set up a damning investigative framework. This post laid out how the Agalarovs had been cultivating Trump for years, in part by dangling real estate deals and close ties with Vladimir Putin. This post shows how during the election, the Russians and Trump danced towards a quid pro quo agreement, with the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton in exchange for a commitment to sanctions relief, with some policy considerations thrown in.

Here, I’ll lay out the questions that show Mueller’s interest in how Trump and the Russians began settling the quid pro quo during the transition. To the extent these are quid pro quo payoffs, and not simply Logan Act violations, they’d be key elements in a conspiracy.

The quo: policy payoffs

Immediately after the election, the Russians called to collect on their winnings.

According to Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress, the day after the election, Putin sent a congratulatory email to the campaign. In response, he reopened communications with Sergey Kislyak. A day later, the Agalarovs emailed congratulations to let the Trumps know they were “always at your disposal here in Russia.”

“Don!!! Amazing run and a glorious victory!!!!! Congratulations to you and your dad, we are proud and happy for you !!!!!! Always at your disposal here in Russia

On November 28, Rob Goldstone sent an email passing on sanctions materials to Trump’s assistant Rhona Graff.

“Aras Agalarov has asked me to pass on this document in the hope it can be passed on to the appropriate team.

Natalia Veselnitskaya, too, followed up on her Magnitsky request.

In addition to the sanctions demand, according to Jared, the Russians emphasized policy concessions on Syria. A retracted Brian Ross story said that emphasis started even before the election, but in reality the outreach happened almost immediately after the election.

December 1, 2016: What did you know during the transition about an attempt to establish back-channel communication to Russia, and Jared Kushner’s efforts?

On December 1, Jared and Flynn met with Sergey Kislyak. Jared reportedly asked for the Russians to provide a secure channel. Jared claims the idea for a secure channel came from Kislyak (Mueller likely has intercepts that clarify Kislyak’s version of the story). But he makes it clear the back channel pertained to Syrian policy.

[Kislyak] especially wanted to address U.S. policy in Syria, and that he wanted to convey information from what he called his “generals.” He said he wanted to provide information that would help inform the new administration. He said the generals could not easily come to the U.S. to convey this information and he asked if there was a secure line in the transition office to conduct a conversation. General Flynn or I explained that there were no such lines. I believed developing a thoughtful approach on Syria was a very high priority given the ongoing humanitarian crisis, and I asked if they had an existing communications channel at his embassy we could use where they would be comfortable transmitting the information they wanted to relay to General Flynn. The Ambassador said that would not be possible and so we all agreed that we would receive this information after the Inauguration.

Given how often Kushner and Trump talk face to face, this may be one of the questions about which Mueller has the least certainty of the answer. But we know that in Jared’s interview with Mueller’s prosecutors, they focused on that meeting. They also asked if he had information that exonerated Flynn; his answers (and Flynn’s reported unhappiness that Trump had proven disloyal) led immediately to Flynn’s plea deal, so for some reason Mueller must believe Flynn over Kushner.

Mueller’s interest in how much Trump knew about Kushner’s pursuit of a back channel is important for several reasons. It provides evidence that Kushner (and the Trump Administration generally) was engaged in what I call ConFraudUs on foreign policy, pretending to pursue US foreign policy that actually served other interests. And Kushner’s pursuit, possibly at Trump’s direction, of unmonitored channels is important background to Trump’s response as it became clear the FBI had collected evidence of wrong-doing during the transition.

Curiously, Sekulow’s version of these questions does not include one about Kushner’s December 13 meeting with Sergey Gorkov, the head of the sanctioned Vnesheconombank.

December 29, 2016: What did you know about phone calls that Mr. Flynn made with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, in late December 2016?

According to Flynn’s Statement of Offense, as he was on the phone with Kislyak, he was coordinating closely with a transition official we know to be KT McFarland.

On or about December 29, 2016, FLYNN called a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team (“PTT official”), who was with other senior ·members of the Presidential Transition Team at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian Ambassador about the U.S. Sanctions. On that call, FLYNN and the PTT official discussed the U.S. Sanctions, including the potential impact of those sanctions on the incoming administration’s foreign policy goals. The PIT official and FLYNN also discussed that the members of the Presidential Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation.

Immediately after his phone call with the PTT official, FLYNN called the Russian Ambassador and requested that Russia not escalate the situation and only respond to the U.S. Sanctions in a reciprocal manner.

Shortly after his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with the PTT official to report on the substance of his call with the Russian Ambassador, including their discussion of the U.S. Sanctions.

On or about December 30, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement indicating that Russia would not take retaliatory measures in response to the U.S. Sanctions at that time.

On or about December 31, 2016, the Russian Ambassador called FLYNN and informed him that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to FL YNN’s request.

After his phone call with the Russian Ambassador, FLYNN spoke with senior members of the Presidential Transition Team about FL YNN’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador regarding the U.S. Sanctions and Russia’s decision not to escalate the situation.

We know Mueller has an email — one the transition probably didn’t turn over to Congress in voluntary discovery, and about which they may have intended to invoke executive privilege — that captures part of the discussion about sanctions. Of critical importance, the transition team opposed these sanctions for two reasons: 1) because they wanted better relations with Russia and 2) because they believed that sanctioning Russia for tampering with the election created the appearance that Trump wouldn’t have won without Russia’s help.

On Dec. 29, a transition adviser to Mr. Trump, K. T. McFarland, wrote in an email to a colleague that sanctions announced hours before by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling were aimed at discrediting Mr. Trump’s victory. The sanctions could also make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote in the emails obtained by The Times.

[snip]

Mr. Obama, she wrote, was trying to “box Trump in diplomatically with Russia,” which could limit his options with other countries, including Iran and Syria. “Russia is key that unlocks door,” she wrote.

She also wrote that the sanctions over Russian election meddling were intended to “lure Trump in trap of saying something” in defense of Russia, and were aimed at “discrediting Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

“If there is a tit-for-tat escalation Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote.

In other words, Mueller has a good deal of evidence showing that Flynn’s actions were closely directed from Mar-A-Lago. He has multiple different versions from people involved about how closely Trump was involved in this direction. He also has substantial evidence that suggests that the worry about diminishing the victory idea actually comes from Trump. The question, then, aims not just to prove that Trump ordered Flynn to undermine the official policy of the United States at a time when he did not have the authority to set US foreign policy, but also to tie these orders to the response Trump took as FBI started discovering his conspiracy with the Russians.

January 11, 2017: What do you know about a 2017 meeting in Seychelles involving Erik Prince?

After Jared asked for a back channel, after UAE’s crown prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan made an unannounced visit to Trump Tower with Jared, Flynn, and Steve Bannon in December, Erik Prince ended up at a meeting in the Seychelles set up by Nahyan with Russian Direct Investment Fund head Kirill Dmitriev and a bunch of other shady funders. On top of looking like the back channel Jared had been seeking in December, the meeting is also a logical follow-on to Jared’s meeting with Gorkov (RDIF is a somewhat less sanctioned subsidiary of Vnesheconombank).

Mueller has George Nader’s testimony about what happened at this meeting, and probably a good deal of SIGINT, which reportedly shows that Erik Prince lied in his HPSCI testimony when he claimed his meeting with Dmitriev had been a chance encounter.

On or around January 11, 2017, I traveled to the Seychelles to meet with some potential customers from the UAE for the logistics business of which I am chairman. After the meeting, they mentioned a guy I should meet who was also in town to see them, a Kyrill Dmitriev from Russia, who ran some sort of hedge fund.

I met him in the hotel bar, and we chatted on topics ranging from oil and commodity prices to how much his country wished for resumption of normal trade relations with the — relationship with the USA.

Even Prince’s testimony ties sanctions relief with policy considerations in Syria and elsewhere that countered the official policy of the US. And it likely also ties those policy considerations to the personal enrichment of people like Prince and Jared, if not Trump personally.

One note: by repeatedly pitching Trump and his associates using businesses under sanction, the Russians provided Trump with his own incentive to relieve sanctions, the opportunity for Russian investment.

Late January, 2017: What do you know about a Ukrainian peace proposal provided to Mr. Cohen in 2017?

In late January 2017, just after the inauguration, Ukrainian parliament member Andrii Artemenko met with Felix Sater and Michael Cohen to propose a peace deal for Ukraine that would have Ukrainian voters endorse a long term lease of Crimea for Russia and undermine the government  of Petro Poroshenko. Cohen passed on the plan to Flynn just before he resigned. Sater — who claims to be cooperating with Mueller — said that the deal was endorsed by Russia.

Given Sater’s involvement in brokering both the Trump Tower deal and this with Cohen, it’s possible that this deal is another thing that ties policy concessions to Russia with business deals for Trump. Mueller will have both Sater and Flynn’s version of this story. Any records pertaining to it seized by SDNY will be preserved until such time as Mueller asks for them.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief (Part Two in a Series)

As I explained in Part One of this series, I think the Mueller questions leaked by the Trump people actually give a far better understanding of a damning structure to the Mueller investigation — one mapping out cultivation, a quid pro quo, and a cover-up — than the coverage has laid out. This post will lay out how, over the course of the election, the Russians and Trump appear to have danced towards a quid pro quo, involving a Putin meeting and election assistance in exchange for sanctions relief if Trump won (as noted, the Russians dangled real estate deals to entice Trump based on the assumption he wouldn’t win).

April 27, 2016: During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media, or other acts aimed at the campaign?

Given the structure of George Papadopoulos’ plea, it’s highly likely Mueller knows that Papadopoulos passed on news that the Russians had thousands of Hillary emails they planned to release to help Trump to people in the campaign. Papadopoulos could have passed on that news to Stephen Miller and Corey Lewandowski as early as April 27. On the same day, Papadopoulos helped draft Trump’s first foreign policy speech, which Papadopoulos reportedly told Ivan Timofeev signaled a willingness to meet.

Between the time the GRU first exfiltrated DNC emails in April and the election, Trump invoked “emails” 21 times on Twitter (usually to refer to emails from Hillary’s server). The first of those times came on June 9, less than an hour after the Trump Tower meeting. The most famous of those came on July 27, when Trump addressed Russia directly.

Earlier in the day, Trump had called on Russia to release the emails not to the FBI, but to the press.

Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.

The timing may reflect awareness among some in the campaign that the call to Russia was a step too far legally. (h/t TC for the addition)

That Trump’s email comments pertain mostly to Hillary’s home-based server doesn’t actually exonerate him. Right after the DNC release (and therefore the July 27 Trump tweet), GOP rat-fucker Peter Smith started reaching out to Russian hackers in hopes of finding hacked versions of those emails. His support documents named Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Sam Clovis, and Mike Flynn. If those people actually learned of the effort (there’s reason to believe Smith was just overselling the ties to the campaign), it’s possible that Trump learned about it as well.

As to social media, while it has gotten virtually no attention, the reference to three Florida-based Trump campaign officials in the Internet Research Agency indictment suggests further investigative interest in them.

[T]here are three (presumed) Americans who, both the indictment and subsequent reporting make clear, are treated differently in the indictment than all the other Americans cited as innocent people duped by Russians: Campaign Official 1, Campaign Official 2, and Campaign Official 3. We know, from CNN’s coverage of Harry Miller’s role in building a cage to be used in a fake “jailed Hillary” stunt, that at least some other people described in the indictment were interviewed — in his case, for six hours! — by the FBI. But no one else is named using the convention to indicate those not indicted but perhaps more involved in the operation. Furthermore, the indictment doesn’t actually describe what action (if any) these three Trump campaign officials took after being contacted by trolls emailing under false names.

So Mueller may be pursuing whether there was state-level coordination going on, and if so, how far up the campaign chain of command knowledge of that coordination extended.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding any meeting with Mr. Putin? Did you discuss it with others?

On June 16, 2015, the day Trump announced his campaign, the Agalarovs offered to serve as an intermediary between him and Putin.

Then, starting at least as early as March 31, 2016 (with Trump’s first foreign policy meeting), his aides started floating pitches for meetings with increasingly senior campaign officials that would hypothetically lead up to one between Trump and Putin.

Those include at least:

  • The George Papadopoulos thread, spanning from March 21 through August 15
  • The Carter Page thread, including his Moscow trip in July, and possibly continuing through his December Moscow trip
  • The NRA thread, focusing on the NRA meeting in Kentucky in May; NRA’s longer outreach includes Trump associates John Bolton and David Clarke

We know Trump was present and did not object when Papadopoulos pitched this in the May 31 meeting. Several of the other entrees went through Don Jr. Many of the offers got briefed at least as far as Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort. We don’t know how many of the other offers he learned about. We just know that years earlier he had joked about becoming Putin’s best friend, and over the course of the campaign, Russian intermediaries made repeated, persistent efforts to work towards a meeting between Trump and Putin, with a meeting between Agalarov representatives (who, again, had offered to serve as intermediaries with Putin when Trump kicked off the campaign) and the most senior people on the campaign happening just as Trump sealed up the nomination.

May 31, 2016: What discussions did you have during the campaign regarding Russian sanctions?

This is an open-ended question that might pose particular problems for Trump given the misleading statement claiming the June 9 meeting was about adoptions and not the Magnitsky sanctions. More interesting still are hints that Mueller sees a signaling going back and forth involving Papadopoulos; some of this may have involved signaling a willingness to provide sanctions relief.

Both Aras Agalarov and Natalia Veselnitskaya followed up after the election pushing for sanctions relief.

June 9, 2016: When did you become aware of the Trump Tower meeting?

Sam Nunberg has suggested Trump probably learned of the Trump Tower meeting before it happened. While he is unreliable on that point, the original June 3, 2016 email Rob Goldstone sent to Don Jr suggests reaching out to Trump’s assistant Rhona Graff.

I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first.

Democrats suspect that between two calls Don Jr had with Emin Agalarov about the meeting on June 6, 2016, he called his dad.

Trump Jr.’s phone records show two calls to and from the same Russian number on June 6, 2016.62 The first call occurred at 4:04 pm on June 6, 2916 – just 21 minutes after Goldstone emailed Trump Jr. to say that Emin Agalarov was “on stage in Moscow but should be off within 20 minutes so I am sure can call. [emphasis added]” 63 At 4:38 pm, Trump Jr emailed Goldstone, “Rob, thanks for the help.”64

This documentary evidence indicates that a call likely took place between Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov. During his interview, Trump Jr. confirmed that the Russian phone number belonged to Agalarov, though he claimed to not recall whether he actually spoke with him. Rather, despite one of the two calls reflecting a two-minute connection, Trump Jr. suggested that Agalarov may have left voice messages.65

The phone records also show a “blocked” number at 4:27 pm, between the two calls to and from Emin Agalarov. Trump Jr. claimed he did not know who was associated with the blocked number.66 While the Committee has not pursued leads to determine who called Trump Jr. at this crucial time from a blocked number, Corey Lewandowski told the Committee that Mr. Trump’s “primary residence has a blocked [phone] line.” 67

Mueller, of course, almost certainly has the phone records the Democrats weren’t able to obtain.

Finally, Steve Bannon has stated that he’s certain Don Jr “walk[ed] these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor” on the day of the meeting. There’s reason to believe Ike Kaveladze and Goldstone could have done so, including the new piece of evidence that “Kaveladze left [a meeting with Rinat Akhmetshin and Natalia Veselnitskaya] after a few minutes to take a call from Agalarov to discuss the meeting.”

The day after the meeting — and four days before Trump’s birthday — Agalarov sent Trump an expensive painting as a present.

The June 9 meeting is, as far as is public, the most important cornerstone in a presumed quid pro quo. Russians offered unnamed dirt that Don Jr seemed to know what it entailed even before speaking to Emin Agalarov personally. Having offered dirt, four Russians — including two representatives of Trump’s long-time handler Aras Agalarov — laid out a pitch to end the Magnitsky sanctions. And less than a week later, a presumed Russian agent released the first dirt stolen from Hillary Clinton.

July 7, 2016: What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?

We don’t have many details on what Mueller knows about Manafort’s requests for help on the campaign. We do know he remained in close touch with Russians via someone the FBI believed was a Russian intelligence agent, Konstantin Kilimnik, through whom he remained in communications with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska is named in some court documents in a way that suggests his relationship with Manafort may be the still hidden third prong of investigation into Manafort approved by August 2, 2017.

Starting in April, Manafort and Kilimnik (whom Rick Gates and therefore presumably Manafort knew was a former GRU officer), exchanged a series of cryptic emails, suggesting that Manafort might be able to pay off the $20 million he owed Deripaska with certain actions on the campaign. In an email sent on July 7, Manafort offered to provide briefings on the campaign to Deripaska. On or around August 2, Manafort and Kilimnik met in person at the Grand Havana Club, in Kushner’s building at 666 5th Avenue. Both deny that anything about the campaign came up. Shortly after this meeting, one of Deripaska’s jets came to Newark, and Russian opposition figure Viktor Navalny has claimed to have proof the jet went from there to a meeting between Deripaska and Russian deputy prime minister Sergei Prikhodko.

An August 2017 report describes intercepts picking up “Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort, … relay[ing] what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.”

There’s one more area of potential assistance I find of interest. Since January, we’ve been getting hints that Oleg Deripaska has some tie to the Steele dossier, possibly through a lawyer he and Steele share. I’ve raised repeated concerns that the Russians learned about the dossier and found ways to feed Steele disinformation. If they did, the disinformation would have led Democrats to be complacent about the hacks that targeted them. And whether or not the dossier is disinformation (and whether or not Deripaska had a role in that, if true), Paul Manafort coached Reince Priebus on how to attack the dossier as a way to discredit the investigation into the campaign’s ties with Russia.

With regards to this Manafort question: remember that Rick Gates flipped on February 23, and the questions date to early March. So Gates may have proffered confirmation about these details. In any case, Mueller likely has learned far more about them two months after Gates flipped.

July 10-12, 2016: What involvement did you have concerning platform changes regarding arming Ukraine?

The Majority HPSCI Russia Report explains that the RNC platform was changed by staffers at the convention based off Trump’s public statements on sanctions.

[Rick] Dearborn generated a memorandum, dated August 1, 2016, outlining a detailed sequence of events that occurred between July 10 and 12, 2016. As part of that memo, J.D. Gordon created a timeline that noted candidate Trump’s policy statements–including at a March 31, 2016, national security meeting–served as the basis for the modification of [Diana] Denman’s amendments. Gordon’s timeline made it clear that the change was initiated by campaign staffers at the convention–not by Manafort or senior officials.

J.D. Gordon has not confirmed that he was asked about this, but he surely was. I would expect Mueller to have tested the timeline Gordon laid out in summer 2016 (when the platform change was a big political issue) against the testimony and communications records of everyone else involved.

Of course, by asking the question in this fashion, Mueller doesn’t reveal what he has already confirmed about the platform changes.

August 5, 2016: What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?

After multiple public statements that the Russians were behind the hack-and-leak, on August 5, 2016 (after traveling from NY to LA to his home in FL), Roger Stone wrote a column claiming to believe that Guccifer 2.0 was a hacktivist with no ties to Russia. Stone’s purportedly changed beliefs about Guccifer 2.0 coincide with an August 4 claim he made in an email to Sam Nunberg that he had met with Julian Assange the night before. Stone’s claimed belief that Guccifer 2.0 is not Russian is key to his denials of any involvement or pre-knowledge of hack-and-leak events. It also kicked off an alternative story that others, up to and including Trump, have adopted to excuse their own embrace of the stolen emails. In other words, a key prong in the plausible deniability the Russians built into the hack-and-leak campaign came from long-time Trump associate Roger Stone, after a dramatic and unexplained change in beliefs (Lee Stranahan, who used to work for Breitbart and now works for Sputnik, has claimed some credit for the change, and given how lucid the August 5 column is, someone had to have helped Stone write it).

Ten days later, after Stone had called on Twitter to let him out of Twitter jail, Guccifer 2.0 and Stone started exchanging (fairly innocuous) DMs.

There are events both before and after that which suggest Stone — probably through more interesting go-betweens than Randy Credico — sought information on what dirt Assange and Wikileaks had, and what and when planned to do with it.

Much has been made, especially in the DNC lawsuit, about Stone’s seeming prediction that “it would soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel.” Perhaps that’s true (and Stone’s explanation for the tweet is garbage), but any explanation of Stone’s supposed prediction needs to acknowledge that he more often predicted Wikileaks would release Clinton Foundation emails, not Podesta ones, that he got the timing somewhat wrong, and that he didn’t dwell on the Podesta emails at all once Wikileaks started releasing them (preferring, instead, to talk about Bill Clinton’s lady problems). Still, that may reflect Stone involvement in the Peter Smith operation, and efforts to get WikiLeaks to release purported Clinton Foundation emails passed on via hackers.

That Mueller is even asking this suggests (if the several grand jury witnesses in recent months dedicated to it don’t already) that Mueller has a pretty good idea that Stone’s communications were more extensive than his denials let on. That he thinks Stone may have shared that information with Trump is all the more interesting.

All of which is to say that the known answers to Mueller’s questions map out a quid pro quo set up during the election, in which Russians offered a Putin meeting and dirt on Hillary, with the expectation that Trump would lift the Magnitsky sanctions if he won (and would get a Trump Tower in Moscow if he lost). I suspect there are other pieces to the quid pro quo, dealing with Ukraine and Syria. But certainly the June 9 meeting set up an understanding: dirt in exchange for Magnitsky relief. The release of the Guccifer 2.0 emails may indicate the Trump camp provided some signal they had formally accepted the offer.

Update: Fixed syntax in last paragraph, h/t LT.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up (Part One, Cultivation)

I wasn’t going to do this originally, but upon learning that the Mueller questions, as NYT has presented them, don’t maintain the sixteen subjects or even the 49 questions that Jay Sekulow drew up from those 16 areas of interest, and especially after WaPo continues to claim that Mueller is only investigating “whether Trump obstructed justice and sought to thwart a criminal probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election,” I am going to do my own version of the questions, as released by the NYT.

I’m not pretending that this better represents what Mueller has communicated to Sekulow, nor am I suggesting NYT’s version isn’t valid. But the questions provide an opportunity to lay out a cultivation, quid pro quo, and cover-up structure I’ve been using to frame the investigation in my own mind.

This post lays out the “cultivation” questions Mueller wants to pose.

The cultivation

The questions start well before the election, focusing on both Trump’s persistent interest in building a Trump Tower in Moscow, the cultivation of Trump by the Agalarov camp, and Trump’s interest in becoming best friends with Vladimir Putin. The questions may also include other real estate deals that would be less obviously tied to Russia, but possibly just as compromising. It’s worth remembering, Trump probably didn’t expect he’d win. So the Trump Tower offers were a prize that would be available (and easier to take advantage of) based on the assumption he’d lose.

November 9, 2013: During a 2013 trip to Russia, what communication and relationships did you have with the Agalarovs and Russian government officials?

On November 9, 2013, the Agalorovs helped Trump put on Miss Universe in Moscow; Trump Tower meeting attendees Rob Goldstone and Ike Kaveladze were both also involved. If the pee tape — or any kompromat involving “golden showers,” as Jim Comey claims Trump called it — exists, it was made on November 8, 2013.

Leading up to the event, Trump talked about meeting Putin and “will he become my new best friend?,” but that reportedly did not happen. But he did meet a bunch of other oligarchs. In the aftermath of the event, the Agalorovs floated building a Trump Tower in one of their developments.

November 2, 2015 to November, 2016: What communication did you have with Michael D. Cohen, Felix Sater and others, including foreign nationals, about Russian real estate developments during the campaign?

On November 3, 2015, at a time when Trump’s campaign was experiencing remarkable success, and well after (per the Internet Research Agency indictment) the election year operation had started, Felix Sater approached Michael Cohen to pitch yet another Trump Tower in Moscow deal. He tied the deal explicitly to getting Trump elected.

Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.

Remember: Mueller’s subpoena to Sam Nunberg goes back to November 1, 2015, suggesting this is the timeframe he’s thinking explicitly about.

The initial public story about the deal — which Cohen tried to squelch before his congressional interviews — claimed that the deal fizzled out in January 2016. More recent reporting has revealed that one of the people involved in this deal has ties to GRU, the Russian intelligence organization behind the hack-and-leak, and that Cohen pursued it at least as late as June, 2016.

Around that time (possibly on July 22, with the involvement of Ivan Timofeev, who was involved in offering up emails), Sergei Millian — who had brokered Trump business with Russians in the past — started cultivating George Papadopoulos. After the election, Millian pitched that the two of them should do a Trump Tower deal.

The Trump Tower offers are only the most obvious election-related deal Mueller might be interested in. In October 2016, for example, Cypriot businessman Orestes Fintiklis obtained a majority stake in the troubled Trump Panama development, which he has since taken over (possibly along with a bunch of papers showing the money laundering Ivanka did to fill the building). And all that’s before you consider any deals Jared was pitching.

RESOURCES

These are some of the most useful resources in mapping these events.

Mueller questions as imagined by Jay Sekulow

CNN’s timeline of investigative events

Majority HPSCI Report

Minority HPSCI Report

Trump Twitter Archive

Jim Comey March 20, 2017 HPSCI testimony

Comey May 3, 2017 SJC testimony

Jim Comey June 8, 2017 SSCI testimony

Jim Comey written statement, June 8, 2017

Jim Comey memos

Sally Yates and James Clapper Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, May 8, 2017

NPR Timeline on Trump’s ties to Aras Agalarov

George Papadopoulos complaint

George Papadopoulos statement of the offense

Mike Flynn statement of the offense

Internet Research Agency indictment

Text of the Don Jr Trump Tower Meeting emails

Jared Kushner’s statement to Congress

Erik Prince HPSCI transcript

THE SERIES

Part One: The Mueller Questions Map Out Cultivation, a Quid Pro Quo, and a Cover-Up

Part Two: The Quid Pro Quo: a Putin Meeting and Election Assistance, in Exchange for Sanctions Relief

Part Three: The Quo: Policy and Real Estate Payoffs to Russia

Part Four: The Quest: Trump Learns of the Investigation

Part Five: Attempting a Cover-Up by Firing Comey

Part Six: Trump Exacerbates His Woes

Paul Manafort’s iPod (and Other Apple Product) Habit Rivals His Antique Rug Habit

In addition to a misleading motion to conduct an investigation into leaks about the investigation into him, Paul Manafort submitted similar (but not identical) motions to the motions he submitted to throw out the fruits of searches of his storage facility and condo in the DC case.

In addition to one or two different precedents (reflecting the different circuit), the biggest difference in the condo search motion is that Manafort lists all the devices the FBI took from his condo. The disorderly list of his devices includes at least 20 Apple devices:

  • 4 DVD discs
  • 7 external hard drives
  • 12 SD cards
  • 7 memory sticks
  • 1 micro SD card
  • 1 iPod
  • 3 compact flash cards
  • 1 MacBook Air hard drive
  • 2 iPads
  • 9 thumb drives
  • 1 iPhone
  • 1 micro vault pro
  • 1 DEWF_COMBO1: A 1TB (containing forensic images and device extractions from rooms: C, F, K, and Q)
  • 7 iPods
  • 1 iMac (including 1 Solid State Drive (SSD) and 1 Hard Disk Drive (HDD))
  • 4 iPhones
  • 1 SD card
  • 12 digital flash drives
  • 1 Macbook Air
  • 2 iPad Minis
  • 2 micro SD HC cards
  • 2 SD HC cards
  • 1 ultra-SD XC I card [my emphasis]

I raise this not just because Manafort appears to collect Apple devices like he also collects (er, launders) antique rugs. But also for another detail.

In the original filing, Manafort suggested that an Agent could not possibly have believed that an iPod would contain any evidence.

For example, the search warrant inventory of electronic devices seized or imaged includes things such as an Apple iPod music device and some Apple iPod Touch music and video devices. No agent could have reasonably believed that he was seizing electronic devices used in the commission of the subject offenses.

Not so, I argued.

Except that’s not right: you can use Signal on iPods, so these might have stored communication. Which would be precisely the kind of thing that would be of most interest: devices that could be used for encrypted comms that would not show up on cell records.

See this piece for how communicating using an iPod over WiFi is the most secure way to communicate.

The government was similarly unimpressed with Manafort’s focus on his iPods.

Manafort’s contention again rests on his mistaken reading of the warrant—that is, that it authorized only the seizure of computers and storage media that were instrumentalities of the Subject Offenses. As explained above, however, the warrant also authorized agents to search “storage media (such as hard disks or other media that can store data)” for the 11 categories of records enumerated in Attachment B. See Doc. 264-1 Attach. A. Devices such as the iPod and iPod Touch plainly qualify as “storage media,” since they can store files such as contact lists and can even be used as backup drives. See, e.g., See United States v. Ballard, 551 Fed. Appx. 33, 36 (3d Cir. 2014) (unpublished) (personal information relevant to identity-theft scheme found on iPod); United States v. Okeayainneh, No. 11-cr-87, 2011 WL 2457395, at *10 (D. Minn. May 13, 2011) (affidavit established probable cause to believe that an iPod was among the devices used to store and transmit information in a fraud and identity-theft scheme). Because those devices are capable of storing evidence that falls within the scope of the warrant, the agents properly imaged those devices or took them for offsite review under Attachment A to the warrant.

The government goes on to note that even if they shouldn’t have taken the iPods, the only recourse Manafort has is to suppression of evidence submitted at trial. And the government won’t be using evidence from the iPods at trial in this case.

In any event, Manafort would not be entitled to suppression even if he were correct. Absent evidence that the government flagrantly disregarded the terms of the warrant (which Manafort does not allege), the remedy for the seizure of materials outside the scope of a warrant is suppression of the improperly seized materials. See Maxwell, 920 F.2d at 1034 n.7. Here, Manafort identifies only the two iPod devices as supposedly falling outside the warrant’s terms, but the government will not be introducing any evidence obtained from those devices at the trial in this case. There is, in short, nothing to suppress. [my emphasis]

I’m a bit confused by the government reference to “two iPod devices,” because Manafort’s new list identifies eight. The discrepancy may arise from iPods that were taken versus those that were simply imaged.

In any case, Manafort cites the government in his EDVA motion, again focusing on a handful — whether a big or small handful — of iPods as proof that the search was improper. But he doesn’t cite the government motion directly.

In his opposition to Mr. Manafort’s motion to suppress evidence seized from his residence filed in the related matter pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Special Counsel stated that he would not seek to introduce evidence from the iPods seized from the residence, see United States v. Manafort, Dkt. No. 17-cr-201 (D.D.C.) Doc. No. 284 at p. 18, further underscoring the unreasonableness of their seizure in the first place.

Rather than stating that “the government will not be introducing any evidence obtained from those devices at the trial in this case,” Manafort instead claims that “the Special Counsel stated that he would not seek to introduce evidence from the iPods seized from the residence.”

Mueller’s team only said they wouldn’t be introducing evidence from the iPods “in this case,” not that they wouldn’t introduce evidence from them “in some future case.”

Manafort is likely to face criminal charges in at least one more case (as indicated by the redacted — to us — bullet in several documents shared more broadly with Manafort). That case is presumably the hack-and-leak conspiracy — the one in which Manafort may have reached out “to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign.” As a reminder, unlike the storage unit warrant, the condo search warrant included evidence about the June 9, 2016 meeting.

Mueller’s team said nothing about introducing evidence from the iPods Manafort is so hung up about in some other trial.

Given how unlikely Manafort is to succeed with these suppression motions, they may pertain as much to evidence that will be used for the hack-and-leak conspiracy as they do to these cut-and-dry money laundering ones. (Michael Cohen’s concern about the FBI searches in NY may similarly reflect concerns about evidence that can be used in the larger conspiracy cases.)

And in both jurisdictions, Manafort seems awfully worried about his iPod devices.

image_print